Data Storage: Walking Through 50 Years of Hard Disk Drive History

 
 
By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2009-09-25
 
 
 

Walking Through 50 Years of Hard Disk Drive History

 

Walking Through 50 Years of Hard Disk Drive History

A Curator of Disk Drive History:

Jim Porter, longtime digital storage expert and creator of the Disk/Trend industry reports for more than two decades, also is the creator and maintainer of the IDEMA Technology Showcase, a walk down Memory (literally!) Lane for engineers of a certain age. Porter exhibits all the key technologies in the history of the spinning disk drive at DISKCON, held this year on Sept. 23 and 24 in Santa Clara, Calif.

A Curator of Disk Drive History:

1956:

The first-ever disk drive: The 6-foot-tall IBM RAMAC disk storage drive, which marked its 50th birthday in September 2006, was the first commercial hard drive. It was roughly the size of a refrigerator. This is the 350 Disk Storage Unit, designed and built in San Jose, Calif., in what would eventually become known as Silicon Valley. This first computing unit had a total memory storage capacity of 5MB on 50 24-inch platters. Only two heads were used to read the disks. See also: "IBM Builds on 50 Years of Spinning Disk Storage"

1956:

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In 1962, IBM introduced the 1301 Advance Disk File machine (right), the first to utilize air bearing heads. This equally large machine could hold 28MB of digital capacity. It had 50 heads—one for each disk—to read data.

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Here is an overall view of IBM's 350 RAMAC (left) and IBM's 1301 Advance Disk File (right), showing their overall footprint. Each was about 6 feet high and 5 feet wide.

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Paul Hofemann, vice president of marketing and business development at Molecular Imprints of Austin, Texas, was a speaker at this year's DISKCON. Here, to add a little perspective to the photo, he stands next to a dinosaurlike 39-inch Bryant Computer 4240 spinning disk, circa 1961. As one of the largest disk drives ever made, it worked in a group of 30 similar disks; the unit was so heavy that it had to be bolted to a cement floor so that the centrifugal force of the spinning drives wouldn't dislodge the unit. Compare this to an iPod Nano. How far we've come!

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In the 1950s and '60s, workstations for disk drive assembly workers looked like this.

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In 1973, disk drives started taking different—and smaller—forms. In that year IBM introduced the 33FD "Igar," which set an industry standard for 8-inch hard drives. These were used for a couple of decades in the enterprise.

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This display shows the progression of the size of disks across a span of about 30 years, from the 1960s to the 1990s.

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HDDs have become smaller, faster and more capacious with the continued improvements in engineering development. Where the disks once were more than a yard across in size (see left and Slide 6), they now can be only a fraction of an inch in size—yet hold incredibly more data.

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The IBM 3334 Disk Drive and 3348 Data Module (for storage) came out in 1973 and was called the Winchester. Why? As Jim Porter tells it: "Every IBM project had to have a code name. When Ken Haughton, who was in charge of this project, saw that this was to have 30MB of permanent storage and 30MB of removable storage on the same machine, he said: 'That's 30-30. We'll call it Winchester.'" (He named it after the .30-30 Winchester cartridge that was first marketed in early 1895 for the Winchester Model 1894 lever-action rifle.) It was the first hard drive with low-mass heads, lubricated disks and sealed assembly. This technology is still very much alive today, albeit in more advanced forms.

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In 1976, Shugart Associates (later Shugart Technologies, then Seagate Technology) joined forces with Wang Laboratories to produce the first 5.25-inch floppy drive, which was used for years in early IBM and Apple personal computers. Why was the 5.25-inch disk size selected? Interesting story, as Jim Porter tells it: "Well, the guys from Schugart and Wang got together to discuss the project, and they went out to a bar one night for drinks. One of them looked at the cocktail napkin and said, 'That's looks like a good size for the disk we want to make.' So it made it into the instructions for Shugart back in the Bay Area to make a floppy disk drive the size of a cocktail napkin—5.25 inches square." All that for 218K capacity.

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In 1981, Fujitsu came up with the first 10.5-inch drive, the F6421 Eagle, which held a then-record 446MB of data.

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In 1982, NEC got into the act by building a custom-made 354MB drive for NTT (Nippon Telephone & Telegraph). The JS4380OC "Patty" used seven 8-inch disks to get that capacity.

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Quantum in 1985 came out with the Hardcard, the first spinning disk drive connected to a card. Capacity was only 10MB.

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This one looks rather unbreakable in its hard shell casing. Hitachi produced the first 9.5-inch hard drive in 1988 in the form of the DKU-86i. It used eight disks to supply 1.89GB of storage.

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This cutaway illustration shows how the platters are arranged in a typical HDD.

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SyQuest Technology in 1992 brought out its SQ3105, the first 3.5-inch cartridge disk drive. It held 110MB of storage. This was an entirely different concept, in that the drive and storage media were self-contained and simply plugged into a data reader. This technology is still very much alive today in more advanced forms.

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Iomega first made waves in the early 1990s with the Zip drive, which used 100MB cartridges. In 1995, Iomega—now part of storage giant EMC—launched Jaz, the first 1GB cartridge drive. That was a lot of capacity back then.

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With capacities starting to get really useful, companies began focusing on I/O performance in the late '90s. Seagate introduced its ST19101 Cheetah in 1997, a 10,000-rpm speedster featuring 9GB of capacity and a data transfer rate of 22MB per second.

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In 1998, Hitachi came back with the first 12,000-rpm drive, the DK3E1T, which featured 9GB of capacity on nine 2.5-inch disks—the smallest around at that time. Data transfer rate: about 27MB per second.

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Seagate launched the first 15,000-rpm in 2000, the Cheetah X-15—named after the famed experimental rocket-powered aircraft built for NASA that set speed and altitude records in the 1960s. The Cheetah had an 18GB capacity and could move data at a 61MB/second clip, so it was fast for the time.

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Hitachi had the honor of showing the smallest HDD at DISKCON: the 1-inch, single-platter Hitachi GST Microdrive 3K8, which launched in 2005. Capacity: 8GB; transfer rate: 33MB/second. Compare this to Slide 6!

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